Sales Strategies: Sales Pipeline and Running Marathons

Almost nobody thinks sales are easy. Why do we do it? Because when it comes to job satisfaction, there’s little that compares with the rush of closing a deal. Especially if it’s been a long, challenging road to get there. Pushing that opportunity through your pipeline and across the finish line might have felt like running a marathon, and for good reason. Training for a marathon and managing your pipeline have a lot in common. Let’s take a look at this apt analogy.

Mindset and training matter.
A marathon is 26.2 miles in length. Sometimes the sales process feels like that! Runners tackle the distance at various paces – some fast, some slow, many somewhere in between. They range in age from teens to seniors. Marathons are not for the faint of heart, but anyone can complete one with the right mindset and training.

The same is true for sales. With training, perseverance, and a goal-focused mindset, anyone can succeed. Whether you’re tackling the NYC Marathon or your sales pipeline, it is essential to monitor progress, take corrective action, and maintain a schedule. Each time you close a deal, it’s like crossing a metaphorical finish line. The journey may include long and painful uphill stretches and running against the wind, but the payoff is so worth it!

Pipeline development requires a plan.
Training for a marathon requires a plan and schedule to help you hit your race date, handle the distance, and maintain pace. Nobody rolls out of bed on race day, with zero preparation, and shows up to compete.

Successful salespeople also have a plan. They identify specific prospecting activities to complete within a defined time frame, with the primary goal of getting meetings. Reaching the 26.2-mile mark in the sales race requires pipeline development via strategic management of active opportunities and building girth throughout the sales funnel.

Pipeline strength and sales stages.
For our purposes, let’s think of sales stages as mile markers throughout the pipeline marathon, covering the sales process from start to finish. It doesn’t matter if your sales cycle is short, long, or varies. You will adjust the cadence of completion of sales stages to suit your sales reality.

Defined sales stages are an easy way for salespeople, sales leadership, and executives to speak, understand and review a common sales language. Sales stages might be: prospect, lead, opportunity, request for quote, in process, in negotiation, won, lost, on-hold. Each defined stage aids in understanding where each opportunity is in the process, much like runners understand key milestones in the race.

Defined pipeline percentages express position in the pipe considering the whole – like mile markers. For instance: 10% initial contact, 25% first meeting scheduled, 40% site walk through, 60% initial proposal, etc.

Defined data points allow you to quickly run real-time reports from your CRM showing how many opportunities are in each pipeline stage. Defining pipeline percentages and what each means leads to more specific reporting. Think of them as “sales vitals” for each opportunity.

The pipeline is easiest to manage when defined to illustrate how sales stages relate to the pipeline’s health. For example, the early pipeline stages (i.e. prospect, lead) are where it is important to have high volume. More prospects translate to a higher probability that you are building a healthier, more robust pipeline overall from which some opportunities will fall off, and others will progress. When you look at your pipeline, you should be able to easily identify how robust it is in each stage of your sales process. It should signal where to turn up the activity to finish the race strong. Your CRM can filter key data points, making it easy to know how healthy your pipeline is at all times.

Sales, like running, is a numbers game.
There is no way around it. The more prospects and leads in all stages of the process, the higher your chances are to land new sales. To keep things moving, you must continually identify your next action and set your next goal. Be ready and willing to recognize and shut down what isn’t working to remain focused on the activities and strategies that produce the best results. Knowing how many and what size opportunities you need in each stage of the sales cycle and pipeline are critical to success. Improvements are measurable, trackable, and numbers-based; just like in running.

Prospecting activities build pipeline.
Prospecting is to sales what strength training is to running. Without it, you’ll run out of steam before you reach the finish line. Pick what works for you and do it! Hire a lead gen service, send eblasts, scour LinkedIn, step-up digital advertising, ask for referrals, yup – even cold call! Today it is possible to know if someone has opened, read, or clicked on information sent. The key to building your pipeline is to do the work! A CRM can easily validate which activities are working for you, which to ditch, and what next steps to take. It provides immediate, actionable “ROI”.

Monitoring and tracking pipeline health.
The key to success is to review your pipeline regularly. One of my colleagues starts every day by reviewing her pipeline. She configured her reporting to provide key data, making it easy to understand each opportunity’s next required action and ensuring that no good opportunity is left behind.

This is critical – she is using live sales data to manage her pipeline daily! She clearly knows how full each stage of her pipeline is and where she needs to increase activity. She also can predict her forecast for winning sales because her pipeline is real. She is more realistic. That helps her to maintain cadence in prospecting, steer her prospects to their next steps, pick up the pace with those who are ready to sign, and back off on those not ready. Her pipeline supports her in her sales race.

Pipeline success builds healthy salespeople.
People who saw me head out daily to train for the NYC Marathon used to ask me why I wanted to do it. The truth is, I wasn’t sure I could actually run that far! Running a marathon didn’t come naturally to me. I had to work at it. I followed a marathon training plan for 16 weeks. I ran many, many miles in all kinds of weather. I got hit by a car. I had terrible shin splits two weeks before race day due to a rookie mistake. But I was determined to reach my goal.

As salespeople, we are always in training, gaining experience by doing. Salespeople who continually up their game, who build and track their sales pipeline, update sales stages, and use data to analyze their wins and losses, are healthier and better at sales.

They learn to use tools and data to their advantage. As a result, they establish a pipeline that continues to pay off in new sales.

Finish the race.
In this challenging sales world, stay the course! Use your CRM to confirm that you are putting forth the right efforts, that you’ve got what you need in all stages of your pipeline, and that you can finish the race strong, achieving the goals you set for yourself.

Tell us more about your pipeline and how you keep it healthy and full.